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New Robotic Arm Mimics Elephant's Trunk

New Robotic Arm Mimics Elephant's Trunk

Additive manufacturing is used to build a robotic arm that mimics the trunk of an elephant.

A research team from Festo, a control and automation specialist, and the Fraunhofer research institute received a German technology award for development of the Bionic Handling Assistant, which operates with compressed air and includes a three-finger gripper.

There are potential applications for the innovation in manufacturing, healthcare and agriculture.

"The Bionic Handling Assistant turns our vision into reality, for the first time enabling humans and machines to cooperate in complete safety," says Peter Post, head of research at Festo, which is based in Esslingen, Germany. "The main innovation lies in the system's unique human-machine cooperation; in the event of a collision with a human, the Assistant's trunk gently moves aside without causing any harm."

The trunk is made of polyamide (nylon), which weighs considerably less than steel or aluminum assemblies. The trunk is made with a selective laser sintering system from EOS.

The plastic components of the trunk include circularly-arranged pneumatic actuators.

New Robotic Arm Mimics Elephanta euro (TM)s Trunk
Free movment
Markus Fischer, head of corporate design at Festo, says, "We were originally fascinated by the structure of the elephant's trunk-it has over 40,000 individual muscle fibers and moves freely in all directions. This inspired us to mimic nature, by developing a handling system which goes far beyond anything currently available in industrial automation."

Festo enlisted the support of Andrzej Grzesiak of the Fraunhofer Institute to drive the project.

Festo is a major innovator in additive manufacturing technology, which can replicate details of many structures found in nature. A laser driven by a CAD file builds structures in tiny layers. It allows freedom of design and production not possible with plastic parts made from molds.

Festo built a "Fast Factory" in Esslingen in 2009 to implement new automation technologies using additive manufacturing. Three additive manufacturing approaches are used there: selective laser sintering (SLS) of plastic powders, laser melting of metals such as aluminum and fused deposition modeling (FDM) for polymer products.

The project received a German technology prize called the "Deutscher Zukunftspreis" (German Futures Award). Launched in 1997, the prize is the German President's award for technology.
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